Mike Mago: “Technology is responsible for about 80 per cent of my success”
Dutch DJ Mike Mago has come a long way since Outlines tore up the Beatport charts. Now he’s back with new music – and a new attitude to studio production.
From promotor and label owner to producer and artist, Mike Mago has gone from running Bmkltsch Rcrds to creating club bangers of his own. We peek into his studio to learn about the tools of his trade, hear his advice for producers, and learn about the biggest regret of his career.
What are your earliest memories of music and electronic music?
My first musical memory is of Broken Wings by Mister Mister. I remember being five or six years old, laying on my bed and really focusing on listening to and enjoying the music again and again. Of course, I’d listened to music before but this was the first time I thought, ‘This is my favourite song’. I first started identifying with music with hip-hop. I recorded every episode of Yo! MTV Raps. From hip-hop, I moved onto drum ’n’ bass, which was probably the first electronic music I actively listened to.
MT: How did you learn production? What was your initial setup?
I started producing after I began running my label and promoting parties. I remember thinking, ‘Hey, I’m no less smart than all these DJs making great music, let’s see if I can do this’. I bought Ableton and followed the lessons in the program. The first time I made a beat I was so hyped. After that, there was a period where I did entire nights of producing without sleep because I was so hyped up. I was about 23, so I was pretty late to the party.
What was the first track you made when you knew you could do this professionally?
After making loads of different genres of music, I thought house would be a cool thing to try out. The third track I made, The Show, got picked up by Ministry of Sound, after I’d released it on my own label and licenced it out to Spinnin’. That gave me a boost in confidence and saw people enquire about things like remixes and other new material. It quickly became professional for me.
How does music technology influence your sound?
I feel like technology is responsible for about 80 per cent of my success. I’m not an expert in music theory and rely on technology to help me make creative choices. The simple Cthulhu plug-in, which is a chord generator, helped me get creative without the theory. Obviously, I do develop my music theory knowledge as well.
Tell us about your studio.
I work on a Mac, mostly in-the-box. But I love putting live elements in there lately. I have another project called Mike Rogers, a live electronic act. We purchased an SPD drum and two MPC Live controllers for this. I like using those in the studio as well. It’s the combination of quantised music live elements where the magic lies for me. Banging on a hi-hat next to my chair, hitting some MPC drum samples, fiddling on my guitar or singing toplines into the mic (which I’ll usually get a proper singer to go over later) – all of that gets my creativity going.
What’s your usual track-making process?
I used to spend a lot of time online looking for unique samples that could spark the idea for a track. I searched for those things at night on my MacBook and worked to develop the idea during the day. But lately, I’ve been trying to approach tracks more conceptually and first create a concept in my head and then start to develop that. This basically means more writing – the lyrics, the melodies, etc. After I decide on the concept, I normally begin with the bass and sing my ideas onto it, as that’s an easy way to see if the concept has legs. Then I start working on everything more or less at the same time, and work on and off on the drums, chords, hooks and mix.
How have you been coping during the pandemic? Have you managed to stay creative?
Yeah. I feel there are two conflicting roles in me. One is the entrepreneur. He’s getting nervous and doesn’t know which moves to make to keep on doing what he loves. The other is the creative. He has inspiration for days at the moment. My creative side is definitely winning over my entrepreneurial side.
Do you think there will be any permanent changes to the way the industry works after the pandemic?
I have no idea. The only thing that I really feel is that DJ’ing is a luxury job. For the DJ, it’s a luxury to play music and get paid for it, and for the audience, it’s mainly simple entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that but when the world is changing like it is now, it could be that people will review the importance of clubs and how we go out. I hope to see a bit more passion and realness in the future. But who am I? It might just be that everything goes back to normal.
Tell us your tip for upcoming producers, or a lesson you learned on your journey that you wish you’d had known sooner?
Always stay humble. You’re only as successful as your last track. Superstars are not a good example. Show up in the studio every day and don’t wait for inspiration to come. A&R managers are just people with opinions.
What’s your biggest career regret?
My biggest regret is that after my ‘hit’ Outlines, I tried to force myself into making music that I thought people would love instead of just enjoying the creative process and letting go of all expectations. I tried to make something successful, instead of just making stuff and seeing if it’s something that could be a success. It’s a bit like sex – think too much and you don’t enjoy it or perform properly.
What’s coming up for you?
I have a new single featuring singer Jodie Abacus. It’s coming out on Astralwerks and I feel it’s going to be a big one.
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